English cricket was last night braced to lose the multi-million pound Indian Premier League extravaganza to South Africa because of the likelihood of April showers ruining the tournament.
Officials from the Board of Control for Cricket in India are expected to fly to London later this week for meetings with senior members of the England and Wales Cricket Board – who themselves have been returning from overseas engagements – but not before visiting South Africa first.
Lalit Modi, the IPL commissioner, flew to South Africa last night for talks with senior government officials there. Modi (right) said on Sunday night that his preference was for the tournament to take place in England, where a large Asian community and high quality venues that are close to each other would help ensure strong ticket sales despite the short notice being given for the tournament.
Since then, concerns about weather conditions in England are thought to have prompted senior BCCI officials to re-evaluate. "The weather in South Africa seems to have become the deciding factor," a BCCI source told the Cricinfo website. Manoj Badale, the co-owner of inaugural champions Rajasthan Royals, said he understood South Africa was the "preferred" destination.
"Certainly based on the conversations I've had, if it goes outside of India you'd have to suggest South Africa is the likeliest venue," he said last night. Referring to the likely reception in England, he said: "April is the start of the cricket season – it's cold, and it's not a prime-time cricket-watching part of the season.
"Children are still at school, people aren't yet on holiday, and people haven't really tuned into the cricket mentality here."
There were also suggestions yesterday that the BCCI, who stand to lose two billion rupees, or about £27m, from the tournament's relocation, were attempting some sort of bluff in order to force India's authorities to step up their security guarantees, the lack of which had prompted the attempt to leave India. The decision to move the tournament away met with uproar among the country's cricket-loving public, with several leading players expressing regret at the BCCI's decision.
The ECB are desperate to capitalise on the opportunity presented by the failure of India's government to provide the necessary security guarantees for the tournament. The terrorist attack in Lahore in March, in which Sri Lanka's players came under fire, heightened concerns about a tournament that coincides with general elections in India, forcing officials to seek to relocate IPL's second season altogether.
But the realisation that up to 70 per cent of matches held on English soil could be affected by rain may lead the BCCI to drop England altogether, although yesterday afternoon Gerald Majola, the chief executive of Cricket South Africa, had said that he was "not that optimistic" about his country's chances. "I think South Africa is just a standby to whoever their choice is," he said.
Modi is expected to meet with representatives of IMG, the event services company that runs the IPL, Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman who is flying back from Australia, where England's women won the World Cup, and David Collier, the ECB chief executive who is coming from Guyana.
Besides the weather, one advantage South Africa would enjoy is less complicated television rights. In South Africa, broadcaster Supersport owns the rights for both IPL and other international cricket. In the UK, however, problems could emerge given Sky Sports is "broadcast partner" for any event endorsed by the ECB, while commercial rival Setanta has a five-year deal with the IPL.
If the tournament does come to England, it could present a logistical nightmare. Dates for the matches – which will run from 10 April, the day after the English season starts, until 24 May, less than a fortnight before the start of Twenty20 World Cup – are non-negotiable, following a promise made by Modi to the Indian public. Many county ground staff, already stretched, may struggle to prepare satisfactory pitches.
Overlapping not just with county games but England's home Test and one-day series against the West Indies, the 59 matches will be jammed into just 45 days, with two matches played on some Saturdays and Sundays.
Wherever the tournament it is held, the spotlight will fall on security arrangements for a tournament forced abroad because of perceived inadequacies in India's own security apparatus. With large crowds, limited preparation time, and several other international public order events in April – including the G20 summit and an England football international – the Home Office and Metropolitan Police, both of whom refused to comment yesterday, will face huge challenges if the tournament to comes to the UK.
Despite the substantial obstacles, the county circuit was abuzz with anticipation yesterday. "We need to evoke the Falklands spirit, and rally together to make it happen," said Andy Nash, chairman of Somerset. "Whether because of terrorism in the subcontinent or political instability in Zimbabwe, many nations are struggling to host matches. The cricket family needs to come together – and England is just the place for it."
Eight teams in all compete in the tournament. Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen are the two best paid players, each earning $1.55m (£1.1m) a year. England all-rounder Ravi Bopara, one of only three other English players to have an IPL deal, said he "would welcome it [the tournament] being in England", adding it would "definitely" be popular with English crowds "and kids especially". With the Twenty20 World Cup and Ashes series rounding off the summer, the IPL would make 2009 English cricket's busiest ever summer.
"You have to wonder how we'll squeeze this competition in," Stewart Regan, chief executive of Yorkshire, said yesterday. "But if we get our act together, it's an unmissable chance to get the best players in the world on English soil."
Doubled up: How the IPL schedule would clash
10 Apr - 19 May IPL (inclusive)
*15 - 18 April County Championship
*19 April Friends Provident Trophy
*21 - 25 April County Championship
*26 April Friends Provident Trophy
*28 Apr - 2 May County Championship
*3 - 4 May Friends Provident Trophy
*6 - 9 May Country Championship
*6 - 10 May First Test: Eng v W Indies
*10 - 13 May Friends Provident Trophy
*14 - 18 May Second Test: Eng v WI
*14 - 20 May Friends Provident Trophy
*21 May First One-Day: Eng v W Ind
21 & 22 May IPL SEMI-FINALS
*23 May Friends Provident q-finals
*24 May Second One-Day: Eng v W Ind
24 May IPL FINAL
*UK weather forecasts for April and May remain inaccurate, though temperatures are forecast to be below average, with above average rainfall.